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Probiotics Innovation Demands Effective, Strategic Messaging

In the probiotics category, diversification and innovation are appearing in pre- and probiotic combination products, innovative probiotic-fortified beverages, multiple-strain concoctions and specialty strains targeting specific conditions such as weight management.

Probiotics have been the talk of the town in recent years. The chatter remains strong, but, as with any saturated market, innovation and diversification are stealing the stage as companies strive to create stand-out products to grab the attention of bacteria-savvy consumers. Within the probiotics category, diversification and innovation are particularly evident in pre- and probiotic combination products, innovative probiotic-fortified beverages, multiple-strain concoctions and specialty strains targeting specific conditions such as weight management.

Innovation is always exciting, as are reports of a strong, healthy market. But probiotics and the effects of probiotics on health are complex; strategic and effective messaging is critical to bridge the gaps in consumer knowledge of probiotics and to keep consumers engaged and confident in the benefits of these healthy bugs.

The Probiotics Consumer

It’s safe to say most consumers believe probiotics are good for them. Why? Well, per a 2017 health survey conducted by GlobalData, more consumers believe in probiotics than they do kale. The Q1 survey showed 65 percent of American consumers reported belief that probiotics have a positive impact on health, compared to 63 percent of consumers that reported the same belief about kale.

However, those who have the “warmest feelings for probiotics”—as stated by Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director at GlobalData—may not be buying them to the degree at which younger consumers are.

Vierhile noted that, among Americans, younger consumers tend to be most interested in probiotics. According to 2016 GlobalData research, 66 percent of consumers aged 25 to 34 years reported interest in products that contain probiotics and reported actively buying such products, compared to 38 percent of Americans of all ages. “Younger consumers seem to be more impressed than older consumers by the health properties of food and drink products, potentially explaining this result,” Vierhile explained.

However, per GlobalData’s 2017 Q1 survey, 85 percent of women aged 45 to 54 years said probiotics had a positive impact on health, representing the highest reading for any age group of women. Sixty-eight percent of men between the ages of 55 and 64 years said they thought probiotics had a positive impact on health, representing the highest reading for any age group for men. “These results could pave the way for more new product innovation aimed at older consumers,” Vierhile said. “We’ll have to see if that transpires, but it could be a logical interpretation of where consumers are now, and where they could go in the future.”

Currently, children are a focus for probiotic innovation, which could be the result of increased interest in probiotics by parents. Vierhile pointed to 2016 research from GlobalData showing among parents, those with a gross income of $100,000 or higher and between the ages of 25 to 34 years are the real sweet spot for probiotics. He added that among these consumers, nearly 75 percent reported they are interested in and actively buying products with probiotics.

“This may explain the recent new product launches aimed at children,” he suggested.

GlobalData’s product launch database indicated several probiotic product launches targeting children, including Culturelle® Kids Regularity Gentle-Go Formula, Olly’s Kids Quick Melt Probiotic Sticks and Proctor & Gamble’s Align Jr. Probiotic Supplement Chewables for Kids, among others. “The parents of these children are likely to be receptive to probiotic supplementation aimed at their children since they may be consuming probiotics themselves,” he said.

Among health-focused consumers, research from Ganeden and conducted by SSI in 2017 found 76 percent of healthy consumers are aware of probiotics—an increase from SSI stats compiled in 2015 showing 70 percent of healthy consumers reported awareness of probiotics.

Consumers most often associate the benefits of probiotics with digestion, but are increasingly connecting probiotics and immunity. This is supported by SSI data showing 93 percent of survey respondents in 2017 reported awareness that probiotics can support digestive health, and 82 percent reported awareness of the benefits of probiotics on immunity. GlobalData reported similar findings.

“The big reason that consumers are seeking out probiotics remains digestive health,” Vierhile said, pointing to a 2015 GlobalData consumer survey showing 58 percent of Americans of all ages said digestive health was the benefit they most closely associated with probiotics. “Immune health” and “general wellbeing” were tied for No. 2, he said, with 22 percent of consumers selecting each option. The survey allowed respondents to select more than one choice, which, according to Vierhile, indicates “digestive health is the big driver for probiotics, and beyond that, the consumer perception of specific benefits related to probiotics is fuzzy.”

Probiotics Market Performance, Activity

Probiotic innovation is happening across food, beverage and supplements categories.

In the supplements category, products containing pre- and probiotic content are seeing impressive growth. Such products saw 32 percent growth in the past year, compared to 9 percent growth of probiotic-only products, according to SPINS. However, pre- and probiotic products represented a significantly smaller market share compared to probiotic-only products (US$112.7 million compared to $930.3 million, respectively).

The firm reported growth of multiple-strain probiotic products is outpacing that of single strain products, representing 11.6 percent growth in the past year compared to 3.5 percent.

In the food and beverage categories, the combination of pre- and probiotic is drawing increased interest, as well. Cross channel data on probiotic-only products is slightly down over the prior year (-1.8 percent), while the growth rate of products containing both pre- and probiotics increased 11 percent.

Vierhile pointed to two categories accounting for more than one-third (37.5 percent) of launches of products containing probiotics from 2016 to July 2017: functional drinks and yogurt. “The latter is no surprise,” he said. “The former is a newer development as drinks are a promising delivery format for probiotics and the range of beverages containing probiotics continues to grow.”

Vierhile also pointed to an “unusual newcomer” among recent product launches: Blue Island Coffee recently debuted a Ready to Drink Cold Brew Coffee Kombucha, “which sounds like a novel pairing,” he said. “Probiotics have also gained ground in the juice category where Tropicana launched Tropicana Essentials Probiotics probiotic juice earlier this year, an indication that juices fortified with probiotics have caught the attention of some of the biggest packaged drink makers.”

Vierhile highlighted vitamins/supplements, drink concentrates and milk as other major categories for probiotics. “We are also seeing some promising innovation in snack products and cookies including the Roobar Probiotic Ball, which is a snack bar-like product in a ball format which is a new wrinkle for this category.”

Effective Messaging Required

As noted by Vierhile, consumers know probiotics are good for digestion, but any further, knowledge of specific benefits related to probiotics is “fuzzy.”

Fuzziness is not a friend of natural products that rely on research and communication of research-supported claims to drive product (and ultimately, category) success. For this reason, marketing and communication is critical to ensure consumers are aware of the increasingly diverse benefits of probiotics.

“When marketing a probiotic, it is very important that the efficacy or clinical benefit of a specific product is clearly communicated to the consumer,” said Steve Prescott, marketing director, Nutraceutix. “Consumers have become very savvy when shopping for probiotics and manufacturers have responded by launching conditions-specific products.”

He directed to marketing efforts of probiotics targeting specific conditions such as occasional constipation or occasional diarrhea, for reduction of gas and bloating, to support healthy immune systems in children, high performance athletes or seniors. “Savvy consumers know these conditions-specific benefits are tied to individual strains or specific combinations of strains that that have been studied in large double-blind, placebo-controlled studies,” he said. “Therefore it is important brand owners market probiotics to include the strain information and amounts of each strain on the package so consumers know exactly what they are purchasing.”

However, according to Vierhile, strain-specific labeling isn’t common. “Relatively few products, however, get into the particulars of the type of strain used, etc.,” he said. “This information may be disclosed on the packaging, but does not appear to be a big part of the marketing thrust for probiotic-containing products.”

Educating manufacturers and consumers about the benefits of specific strains is the responsibility of ingredient manufacturers and suppliers, said Mike Bush, president and CEO, Ganeden. “The responsibility falls on the probiotic companies to make sure they’re promoting the science that they’re doing,” he said. “They’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to support studies; they should be telling everybody who will listen … what the benefit [is], and they need to point out that these findings are specific to their strain and not necessarily all probiotics.”

One challenge facing innovation in the probiotics category is the tendency of consumers to lump the benefits of all probiotics into one category, rather than understanding different strains provide different benefits. This idea is often encouraged by mainstream media.

“[Mainstream media] tends to lump all probiotics into one barrel, and they even go so far as saying, ‘If you’re going to consume a probiotic, you should think about eating sauerkraut or kimchi or pickles or whatever,’” Bush said, “and there’s very little documented evidence on the strains specifically that are, for example, in sauerkraut or kimchi. The strains that turn a cabbage into sauerkraut do a great job with turning cabbage into sauerkraut, but there’s not a whole lot of research relating to whether or not there’s any health benefit there and from those strains at all.”

For this reason, communicating probiotics benefits to both media and consumers is of great importance. “Not just marketing to individuals, but marketing, or promoting, the science and information behind strains and probiotics benefits to the media [is important],” Bush said.

Another area of innovation—as indicated by SPINS data—revolves around products offering multiple strains.

“As the probiotic industry continues to mature, many manufactures are combining strains backed by clinical research and almost like designing blends to ensure the biggest benefit to health,” said Jamie Phillips, SPINS.

Bush, too, referred to multiple-strain products as “en vogue.”

Claims for such products must be carefully navigated.

“If you’re going to have multiple strains, then you should have a study that supports the use of those multiple strains together working in concert with one another,” Bush said. “You also need to know how much of each strain is in there. So if you’re going to have five different strains [and] you’re going to have 50 billion CFU, is it 49-and-a-half billion of one strain and a half billion of a bunch of others? Consumers need to be informed as to what’s in this ‘propriety blend’ or this blend of probiotics.’”

Prescott pointed to best practice guidance on probiotic labeling recently published by the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) and the International Probiotics Association (IPA), which can “help a great deal to provide consumers the needed information when selecting a probiotic,” he said. “The guidance asks brand owner to include important information on their labels like strain ID/names and total colony forming units (CFU) on their packaging.

“Probiotic consumers are becoming more educated every year but there is still a great deal of confusion when selection a product that is right for them,” Prescott said.

Additionally, product developers should be aware of the finished product will be marketed, as claims for some strains aren’t allowed in certain markets. “For instance, there are strain species allowed in Asia, but not in Europe or USA,” said Alan Rillorta, marketing head at AIDP, and Paul-Marie Xavier, technical and business development at Prayon, THT. “This is an important issue to know if you when positioning your product globally.”

Ultimately, as Bush suggested, marketing probiotics is about more than selling a product. “Your goal is to educate the consumer to the point where they fully understand the benefits, understand what it is they’re buying and why they’re buying it.”

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